Queer Failure & Anxiety

It’s May, and I’m traveling cross country on the Amtrak, sitting in the observation car watching what is probably Wisconsin go by.  In the past year, I’ve finished my sophomore year of college, decided that I’ll be getting my first apartment come fall, become a writer whose work people actually read, and published what is by my standards almost nothing.  This blog, let’s be honest, can hardly be called a blog.  I post every few months if that.  And before we get back to our regular program–doesn’t it seem like I’m always saying that? what the hell is our regular program?–I want to talk a little bit about fluidity, anxiety, and failure.

It’s not a phase; I’m really like this; I really do identify this way; this identity is valid because of its stasis–those sentiments have been my refrain ever since I came out as queer.  My first coming out, incidentally, was as bisexual, which I’m not.  I knew something queer was going on, and I misinterpreted a desire to articulate as male with a desire to kiss girls.  You can see how that might happen, in an aggressively heteronormative world, right?  And there I am, trying to justify myself, and my whole point here is that no one should have to justify their queer identity.

When I came out as bisexual as a barely-a-teenager, I was told I didn’t know what my sexual orientation was and I needed to take more time to figure it out before I “came out.”  It was the first obvious manifestation in my life of an important lie: that any true stasis is possible in terms of identity.  That lie has affected me enormously; you can see it in how I write, my obsessive use of qualifiers: maybe, enormously, quite, really, actually–it’s as though I feel the need to tell my reader I might be wrong and please not to be offended if I am.

There are a couple silent messages embedded in, “You should wait to come out until you’ve thought more.”  Firstly, that I shouldn’t come out unless I absolutely had to, because the consequences of coming out would be ruinous if not.  Why would you let people think you were queer if it still might turn out out that–thank God!–you weren’t?  Keep the secret that you’re unsure and maybe it will all go away and we’ll never have to talk about it.  Secondly, it carries the message that anyone‘s identity is totally static.  I feel pretty secure in my identity as a gay trans man–I mean, I’ve plastered it all over my bio here and my friends all know it and both “gay” and “trans” are important signifiers for me in my social life–but I’m not so arrogant as to think that I know myself completely.  There may yet be unplumbed depths in my young self!  Identity is fluid–in the millennial queer world, that’s a truism, but it’s one we forget almost because we say it so often.  As so often in radical political discourse, it’s as though we’ve decided that repetition of a concept exempts us from its practice.

What the hell harm does it do a person to come out as something and then eventually come out as something else, something contradictory?  I haven’t noticed any harm done me by it.  This idea–that we have to know exactly who we are before we speak on anything–exists in infinite iterations, though I think it hits young queers particularly hard because of preconceived notions adults have about young people’s sexual and gender identities.  There’s the version of the idea that says that a queer teen isn’t allowed to say they’re bisexual until they have double triple checked (and probably not even then), or that a trans person isn’t allowed to ask for respect in their gender until it’s been a certain amount of years since they first came out, or that–and obviously this is different–you can’t really say you enjoy an author’s style until you’ve read his whole body of work plus all the articles you could find on JSTOR, or that you can’t publish blog posts until you’ve worked out all your political thoughts because otherwise they’ll be bad and people will think you’re a dilettante kid whose work is only being read because his mom and dad are famou–oh hey.

So there you go.  I’ve been completely freaking out due to an irrational conviction that I have to develop a complete and static set of opinions.  Which is impossible, and which no one ever does ever.  Especially not smart people.  I was going on about this on Twitter (I go on about a lot of things on Twitter) one day, when Reina Gossett pointed out to me the value of queer failure.  Specifically, she said, queer failure is anti-capitalist.  That made me think of how much I hate the contemporary images of queer success.  It made me think about how I evaluate my success.  Capitalism demands we produce consistently, and it demands we produce simple ideas, because complexity takes time, and time is money.  I don’t make any money off this blog, but I’m not so naïve as to think that this blog isn’t part of what will some day be a “career,” or at least will be called one.  I mean, it’s on my résumé for certain jobs.

These days, I don’t believe in the “career activist,” but it would be foolish for me to assume that my political work didn’t inform how people understand me as a professional entity.  And since my professional life is probably going to take place in universities, where I’d try to teach and research in an activist way–well, it’s all complicated, and guess what–I don’t have to decide what I think right now!  It’s still good for me to talk about it, to get it out there, to allow ideas room to grow and change.

Capitalism tries to silence complexity so that the cycle of production can continue uninterrupted, and queer failure is complex.  My failure to know my sexual identity fully at fourteen–but is that really failure? and then again, what exactly would constitute a real and complete failure? are there any one doesn’t grow from?–was complex; it involved the oscillations of my gender identity and also a poignant story of two Conan Doyle-fixated adolescents at Shakespeare camp and in love which I’ll maybe tell you one day but not right now.  My failures now are complex: I fail to produce definite opinions about the Haas convening and what my place in it was; I fail to decide not only what I think but what I will always think about Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage; I fail to eliminate nuance in my thinking, and the only solution I can come to in my anxiety is silence.  So I don’t write the blog post about Haas; I don’t write the blog post about Obama’s endorsement and what it means for the US’s neocolonial pinkwashing; I stay silent and occasionally natter on Twitter.

I’m over that now, or I want to be.  That review of Speakeasy that I promised you forever ago?  It’s coming.  That post on Obama?  Will come to you probably directly after this one, both whenever I’ve got wifi on this cross country train trek.  I’m sick of being silent because the world tells me that queers have to have one set of ideas, one identity, or none at all.  I’m buying various lip tars, reading Portrait of a Lady, and embracing the fact that stasis is a lie.  I hope you find a way to do the same–I mean, with the last one.  The lip tars and the Henry James are strictly optional.

10 Responses to “Queer Failure & Anxiety”


  1. 1 Ronny Chacin May 28, 2012 at 7:16 am

    I can’t wait for your post about obama’s endorsement!! I’m pretty sure I will completely agree with you a 100% ..

  2. 2 kadin May 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    I’m sure you’re already aware of this book but just wanted to pass it along: “The Queer Art of Failure” by Judith “Jack” Halberstam. I also highly recommend Halberstam’s other books.

  3. 3 Jeff May 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    “Failure & Anxiety” what an emotionally powerful combination of words there. One need not be gay to relate in some way, I mean just the reading words makes one feel them. I’m not sure Queer Failure exists other than in someone else’s opinion, which I think is your point. Since there is personal, financial, artistic, etc. types of success and failure, the “commercial” machine having it’s boat rocked (once in a while) is not always a bad thing. I can see people being considered failures and having reached so much personal success, yet we don’t read so much about them do we? The word “disrupt” (or the action of being disruptive) is now sometimes considered a positive thing in some industries.

    I think – for me, that even the vague assumption that one’s spoken point of view might rock the boat and get slightly in the way of the capitalist establishment makes me want to speak out more if not shout from the rooftops. But I should say that sitting back quietly and watching certain establishments crumble all by themselves is fun as well. Boats don’t always need to be rocked to hit an iceberg, or to find a leak too late to be fixed.

    But anxiety is an emotion less open to interpretation. Fear of failure, if one thinks about it very much, can result in feelings of anxiety. I wonder how much anxiety is normal for one to feel? Everyone gets a few slices of failure in life – some more than others obviously. So, as long as one gets some success in there as well to balance it all out – if not neutralize it completely, then fine. But what about anxiety? How much of that shit is one expected to take in life? The more clearly I think, and the sharper my point of view is, the worse the anxiety feels. Yes exactly, one stays away from drink and drugs so you can feel anxiety more powerfully! That was just a joke. And Queer Anxiety (dear god), a special flavor of it just for us gay people. I think I’m going to go for a “serious” hike in Runyon Canyon this afternoon and see if my feelings of Queer Failure & Anxiety can be bought down a few hundred degrees.

  4. 4 Ginevra May 30, 2012 at 4:05 am

    You write with such percision. Fascinating!
    I tend to overqualify as well, to the extend that’s it’s often difficult to finish a sentence…”On Wednesday, no wait, I think it was Tuesday because it was the day I was home sick, well I wasn’t really that sick but they had been painting at the office and the fumes were getting to me, I think it was oil based but it may have been water based, anyway, I was at the store and saw this friend…well, not rally

  5. 5 liarlunaticlorax May 30, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Thank you so much. I have been stuck in my own head for quite awhile now. Thank you for articulating the reason why. Embracing that stasis is a lie may be a step out of silence.

  6. 6 Sig June 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Congrats on finishing your year!

    It’s quite a coincidence I’ve been thinking about labling and simplification recently though in relation to web media. I didn’t make the connection with capitalism, but hey that’s a good one! I might add that it’s also a system ruled by the market – you need to know which groups are your target, so either society creates new ones or the advertisers to it themselves. Just look at the rise of the “teenager” subculture in 60s/70s. We live in a world we live and you can’t overthink anything – growing as a person, figuring yourself out, changing, nope no time – slap a label on. Then there’s politics – parties need to identify their voting pools.

    The truth is that everything is fluid and relative, everyone changes. In an ideal world you wouldn’t have to explain anything, you’d be who you’d be at the moment. Unfortunately, it’s not gonna happen.

    You like Conan Doyle!? Damn, you’re my hero now.

  7. 7 dawn gabriel November 15, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. I found you after doing months & months of google-y research. About me: I’m the mother of a three year-old child who, though biologically a girl, chooses to identify as a boy. He started at a Montessori school this fall (along with his twin sister), and we spoke to his teacher and the school administrator about his identification vs. sex. They said: Are you SURE? Are you SURE you want to let your three year-old daughter dress and act as a boy, and be recognized as a boy?

    It was as if this was a choice that cannot be undone! I’ve felt pretty nervous about it since. Your blog post has been a serious relief. There’s no reason that allowing the child to self-identify the way he wishes prevents him from *changing his mind at any time*. I’m fine with this! He may be a boy from here on out, he may choose to self-identify as female later, or genderqueer, and so what?? This is *not* a failure!

    I just needed someone else to help me clarify these feelings. Thank you. I’m totally subscribing to your feed.

    • 8 Stephen November 16, 2012 at 12:05 am

      You sound rad, and your son sounds rad, and you are doing the absolute best thing for him that you possibly could. If anyone tells you different, you have my official trans permission to laugh at them, because they’re so obviously wrong that it hurts. (You might want to laugh at them in private, though.)

      I’m glad I could help! If you ever want to talk or are having a hard time finding resources, feel free to email me and I’ll see what I can do.


  1. 1 leveling out « 13(BZ) Trackback on May 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm
  2. 2 queer failure? « woven together. Trackback on July 24, 2012 at 3:02 am

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